3 Tips to Reduce Anxiety and Improve Functioning

Recently we covered some of the basics about what anxiety looks and feels like. We also talked about the ways that anxiety can be both helpful and hurtful. If you notice yourself experiencing the hurtful side of anxiety, there are some easy yet effective ways to lower your anxiety level and improve your focus, your relationships, and your overall quality of life.

Let’s dig into three ways that can help you reclaim your mind and body from anxiety.

1. Mindfulness: Take a Compassionate, Non-Judgmental Approach to Your Anxiety

It’s common to notice that anxiety may be unhelpful and getting in the way; however, rarely does saying things to yourself like “Just get over it; there’s nothing to worry about” actually help lessen that anxiety in the moment. Instead, if may cause anxiety to increase or for additional feelings like irritation, shame, and embarrassment to creep in. I picture this as a tug of war going on inside yourself in a game where no one wins. Instead, try to take a non-judgmental approach by practicing mindfulness.

  • Notice how you are feeling, including where in your body, and the thoughts that are occurring.
  • Realize that these emotions, physical sensations, and thoughts are not good. And they are not bad. They just are your experience in this moment.
  • Focus on observing what is happening without fixing, changing, avoiding, or managing. Simply notice with openness, curiosity, and compassion for your current experience.
  • Whenever you notice yourself trying to change something about your experience or judging what is happening, notice that and re-center yourself on simply being aware and observing.

There has been a huge increase in access to mindfulness exercises and guided meditations online, via apps, and in printed books on the topic. A quick online search will provide you with many options to try out.

2. Breathing: Take a Few Minutes for Slow, Deep Breathing

When your built-in alarm system is going off, your body is wired to increase your breathing and heart rate as a way of transporting all the oxygen-rich blood quickly to the major parts of your body that aid in survival. A built-in override switch that you have is your ability to focus on and control your breathing. While there are some really helpful deep-breathing apps out there (a free one is Breathe2Relax), a handy trick is “4×4 breathing,” because it is something you can completely control on your own.

There are four steps that each last for four seconds:

  • Inhale – 2 – 3 – 4
  • Hold – 2 – 3 – 4
  • Exhale – 2 – 3 – 4
  • Hold – 2 – 3 – 4

Repeat this several times — ideally for a couple minutes — and as your breathing begins to slow, all of the other systems in that built-in survival system will also begin to slow back down to a more normal (at least manageable) rate.

3. Grounding: Root Yourself Back in the Here and Now

Anxiety can get the best of you and suddenly take your mind away from the present; perhaps you are lost in your thoughts with future worries or so concerned with all the physical discomfort that you’re feeling that it seems to only make it worse. Grounding can be a helpful way to come back into the present moment.

Try these grounding exercises:

  • Name 5 things you see (ex: I see a pencil on the desk; I see the shades of green on the plant; I see a bug flying around; I see dust on the shelf; I see the tangles in the charging cord).
  • Name 4 things you feel (ex: I feel the smoothness of the blanket; I feel the tightness of my shoes; I feel the cold on my water bottle; I feel the bumps and ridges on the pencil).
  • Name 3 things you hear (ex: I hear the hum of the A/C; I hear muffled sounds of someone talking in another room; I hear the sounds of cars passing outside).
  • Name 2 things you can smell (ex: I smell the scent of my laundry detergent on my shirt; I smell the coffee in this mug).
  • Name 1 thing you can taste (ex: I taste the lemon flavor added to my water).

As you do this exercise, do your best to actually use your senses. You may have to pick something up and smell it or grab something to taste. You can also do these in any order, so if you’re having a meal when anxiety strikes, you could start with 5 things you can taste first, as you would have many things in front of you to focus on. Describe items as factually as possible without adding judgements like “I see the mess I need to clean later” or “I feel the tightness in my pants because I gained weight.”

Be Patient With Yourself

As you give these techniques a try, be patient with yourself. Remember that practice makes progress, and the goal is not perfection. Anytime you try something new, it is bound to feel a bit weird at first, possibly uncomfortable, and may not do the full trick on the first attempt. Yet, if you notice some relief, reassure yourself that the relief you experienced, even briefly, made your efforts worthwhile. And with continued practice, the periods of relief will likely grow and the time it takes to quiet the alarm of anxiety will likely decrease.

If anxiety is a persistent challenge that you face and it is causing noticeable impact in your school work, relationships, and quality of life, consider speaking with your parent/caregiver about exploring options for therapy, which can help you further get at the root issues of the anxiety and further support your journey to anxiety relief.

  • Venée M. Hummel, LCSW is a clinical social worker and clinician at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Centerstone in Clarksville, Tennessee, and an instructor at the Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University. She provides clinical services to veterans and military-connected family members, with a specialty focus on evidence-based treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder, suicide prevention, and the impact of deployments on children, couples, and the entire family. She previously completed a fellowship in combat trauma research, assessment, and intervention at the STRONG STAR Research Consortium and Consortium to Alleviate PTSD at Fort Hood, Texas. Ms. Hummel is also the proud daughter of a U.S. Army soldier with over 30 years of active-duty service, and she is honored to dedicate her career to giving back to the community that helped raise her.

The opinions, representations and statements made within this guest article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of One in Five Minds or Clarity Child Guidance Center. Any copyright remains with the author and any liability with regard to infringement of intellectual property rights remain with them. One in Five Minds and Clarity Child Guidance Center accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.

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